There was an ancient tradition that when someone was consecrated bishop they said, "Nolo episcopari", meaning, "I don't want to be a bishop". It is impossible to say how many episcopal careers thus began with a lie, and the tradition was wisely abandoned. The words might be heard again this week when the General Synod of the Church of England meets; they will be spoken, however, by women seeking to change the Church's rules that at which moment restrict episcopacy to men; and they will be spoken through gritted teeth because these women have been fighting for this change for decades.
How can a change so long awaited, so carefully debated, fall at the last fence? The Synod, an organisation with the clout of a Neighbourhood Watch Association tasked to transact the business of The Council of Nicea, was expected to endorse the decision of 42 of the 44 dioceses of the Church of England to go ahead with the change. It has been a long and difficult and thorough debate but we have – finally – got there. Except we haven't.
Opposition to the change has proved surprisingly durable and, indeed, creative since women priests appeared 20 years ago. As a result, the Church has worked very hard to find a form of agreement which would allow women bishops to be consecrated, yet make room within the Church – a sort of native reservation, if you like – for those who cannot accept them. So hard has it worked that, in spite of the decision of the dioceses, the bishops have proposed some amendments which have alienated everyone. Those who oppose change think they don't go far enough. Those who seek change think they so weaken the episcopal ministry of women we would be better off not bothering – hence the reprise of the Nolo episcopari.
While this is a spectacle most lookers-on must find unintelligible, the Church is only doing what it has always done, which is seek to work out its way of life within horizons and perspectives that are not of this world.
To say so is not to come down on one side or the other – I happen to be very much in favour of women bishops, and not only because it offers the tantalising possibility of a bishop one day being called †Belinda Carlisle – but to suggest that our decision-making will always seem peculiar.
It can be immensely frustrating and it can produce lopsided outcomes. But it also offers at the very least the hope of a compromise between two irreconcilable positions without everyone setting fire to themselves or each other.
Richard Coles is a broadcaster and a Church of England parish priest